Category Archives: Plot

01 Aug

Thanks, Optimus Prime: What the Transformers Can Teach Us About Plot

I am writing a science-fiction trilogy and I’d like it to have general appeal to kids and teens. So, recently, I went to see the new Transformers 4: Age of Extinction to see what I could learn. Here’s one of the official movie trailers.


If you can’t see this video, click here.

Transformer’s Major Plot Points

SPOILER ALERT: I analyze the plot of this movie, so if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know what happens, stop reading!

Who? Yeager family POV
When? Five years after Chicago was destroyed in the Transformer battles.

  1. Inciting incident: Inventor-wannabe Cade Yeager and his friend, Lucas, buy a junk truck that turns out to be Optimus Prime.
    Cade’s promise to his long-lost wife: I will make sure our daughter graduates from high school; graduation is only a week away, so it seems like a slam-dunk. (The rules have changed: we are all targets now.)
  2. Plot Point 1: The evil guys—the Cemetary Wind macho dudes—come to collect Optimus Prime (to take advantage of the rare metal that transformers are made of) and threaten Yeager’s daughter, Tessa—the Yeagers all escape with the help of Tessa’s boyfriend, Shane (though Lucas is sacrificed to show the evil that chases them).
  3. First half of Act 2: Rescue Transformer named Brains from the KSI and the new warrior Transformer, Galvatron is activated to chase them.
  4. Midpoint: Galvatron and Optimus Prime battle. When Optimus Prime is captured, Tessa is also caught and winds up trapped in the alien spaceship owned by Lockdown, an alien bounty hunter. Yeager and Shane must rescue Tessa.
  5. Second half of Act 2: Optimus Prime and Tessa are rescued by Autobots, Yeager and Shane. Alien bounty hunter, Lockdown launches into deep space believing he has Optimus Prime on board.
  6. Plot Point 2: Optimus Prime reveals that Galvatron is really a re-birth of the evil Megatron, who will try to activate the Seed to destroy Earth. They must stop him. The bounty hunter transformer, Lockdown, (To Optimus Prime: You think you were born? You were built and they want you back.) gives KSI a “seed,” which they think will help them make more of the prized metal, but will really destroy Earth.
  7. Act 3. Optimus Prime releases the Dinobots (T-Rex Transformer robots) and attacks Galvatron and win (though Hong Kong, this time, is destroyed). Lockdown returns to claim Optimus Prime.
  8. Climax: Cade, Tessa and Shane take risks to help Optimus (thus proving the story’s theme, that humans can rise to the occasion), who is hurt, but ultimately defeats Lockdown.
  9. Promise kept: Tessa has lived to attend her high school graduation, and has a new-found respect for her Dad’s tinkering ways.

  10. Theme: Optimus Prime: How many more of my kind must be sacrificed for humans.
    Yeager: It’s not who we are, but who we can be.

There are several main subplots and you could analyze the story from one of the other ones. Here, I’ve concentrated on Cade/Tessa as the main plot. If you want to argue that this is Optimus Prime’s story, I could go for that; however, I think readers/movie fans are more likely to identify with the human characters.

In any case, my point is to learn something.

Action/Adventure or a Quieter Story

Looking at this plot analysis, I realize immediately that I’m not putting enough at stake early enough in the story. My Plot Point I involves the character making a decision. It’s not an action scene where the antagonists arrive to threaten a girl and to recapture a rogue transformer.

Of course–different stories have different needs. I describe quiet stories as having a pastel palette and there is indeed a place for stories like this. Transformer’s palette, however, is bold.

My question to answer: What sort of physical action/adventure palette do I want? Is my story a quiet story, or does it fall farther along the spectrum toward an action/adventure story?

Optimus-Prime-Transformers-

Glue for Act 2

The dreaded sagging middle is always a problem for me. In Transformers, the whole of Act 2 is about Rescue: rescue Brains from the KSI; rescue Optimus Prime and Tessa from Lockdown’s space ship. Notice that the Midpoint twists the story in a tangent direction when Tessa is captured and taken to the alien space ship. Of course, we are worried about Optimus Prime! But he’s a strong and able transformer who is likely to fight his way free at some point. Tessa, however, is a high school senior and it’s not fair that she is caught up in this conflict. It’s a nice way to keep the action going, to up the stakes and to play on the audience’s emotions.

My Act 2 hangs together well, and has a nice Midpoint twist. The same question lingers, though. Do I need/want more action/adventure?

The Last Lap: Pumping up Act 3

We transition into Act 3 with a revelation in Plot Point 3 that Galvatron = Megatron. With such an evil abroad, no one can relax. They MUST take the battle to him. And what a battle! Aliens v. aliens. Over Hong Kong! Dinobots, or a great combination of t-Rex with transformers! What’s not to like? We get lots of exclamation points!!!!

This is indeed a movie built on action sequences and it’s almost non-stop in Act 3.
No, I don’t want my story to be THAT action/adventure oriented. I’ll back off the Transformer’s palette a couple steps.

However, there are a couple nice moments. In the Hero’s Journey, there is often a death scene, followed by a resurrection scene. It’s the death of the hopes of the protagonist, and a renewal of the hope. Optimus Prime is impaled and we think he is dying. One of the story’s themes is that humans have potential. It’s crucial here that Cade, Tessa and Shane work as a team to help Optimus: they remove the “spear,” and help him to defeat the evil Lockdown.

My Act 3 has action, a chase, and some nice possibilities for physical action. As I write it, I must remember to include scenes that highlight the theme in an organic way. If I can find a reasonable Death/Resurrection moment, so much the better.

Thanks for the help, Optimus Prime

Studying popular movies like this can be one way to reevaluate your plot. I’m still early in the plotting process, so this is a perfect time to do this. It doesn’t solve my problems: but it forces me to ask the right questions. And at this stage, that’s what I need: questions that force me to think deeper about my story, the characters, and the plot.

30 Jul

What Went Wrong? Story Conflict and How to Make it Stronger

In your story or novel, something must go wrong.

Without conflict, there is no story. As you develop a plot, it’s helpful to think about what is the worst thing that could happen and then figure out if you can make that even worse?

The absolute worst thing–the thing your character fears most of all–MUST happen in the climax of the story. That’s good plotting and storytelling. Building up to that point, you should have a series of conflicts that deepen, that reach out into every aspect of your character’s life, that affects friends, family, or even the survival of the planet or the human species. The series should have a logical progression from bad to worse to worst.

Up the stakes. On way to escalate the conflict is to up the stakes by answering the “So-What?” question. This bad thing is going to happen. So what? Who cares? Who will it affect? How badly will it affect them? When the answer is that the worst thing will affect the most people, you have the stakes well in hand.

Up the emotions. However, even for stories with the fate of the world in the balance are boring if the reader doesn’t care. This means you must provide a wide range of emotions for your characters from the most ardent love to the deepest sorrow. How can I make my character laugh? What would wrench his/her heart? What is the deepest emotion possible in your story? Create that emotional impact. Then take it one level deeper.

Sacrifice. Characters who stupidly volunteer for kitchen duty aren’t sympathetic; they are stupid. However, a reluctant hero who only volunteers to save a loved one–that creates empathy. In HUNGER GAMES, Katniss volunteers to join the Hunger Games so that her younger sister won’t have to. This willingness to sacrifice herself for a loved one elevates here–and the ensuing conflict to new heights.

Jeopardy. When a character is in jeopardy–danger is looming and drawing nearer by the second–readers are on the edge of their seats. Violence, just for the sake of violence, does little to create the emotions needed. Instead, a character must be in danger and must stay in danger for a long time. When I first watched the movie, ALIEN, my stomach hurt because I was so scared. That’s jeopardy. The aliens were coming–and the movie drew out that suspense and jeopardy forever!

This marine is in jeopardy!

This marine is in jeopardy!



10 Sep

Chase: A Fast-Paced Plot

My current WIP novel has a subplot of a chase, which is one of the 29 possible plot templates. Chase Plots are pretty straight forward. There’s a person chasing and a person being chased, the Chaser and the Victim. It’s an action plot, not a character plot (though always, character should be as strong as possible.)

The Chase plot has one major imperative: The Chaser must constantly catch sight of the Victim and the Victim always escapes by the narrowest margin. Otherwise, it’s boring. This subplot must tantalize the reader with the possibility of Chaser actually catching Victim.

My first draft of chapter one completely omitted the Chase subplot, so the first revision I did was to revisit the idea of a Chase Subplot. Yes, the story still needs it. Then, I had to decide how to add in the Chase subplot in an exciting way. What could I add that would give the Chaser a glimpse of her target? My twist on the Chase Plot is the Chaser doesn’t always recognize the Victim. So, I gave Chaser a smart phone app that identifies the Victim. Now, Chaser walks up to a table where Victim is sitting and the app starts to go off, but. . .Chaser is interrupted.

Car Chase

The Car Chase is a staple of Chase Plots. You can choose any form of chase, though, and still up the tension of your story.

Victim is almost caught and only escapes by chance. Because the story is in Victim’s point of view, this works because Victim realizes the danger he was in. Chaser is still clueless, of course, but that’s OK, because it’s not her POV.

Having a chance escape also works this initial time, because the scene introduces the rules of the Chase scene. But now, Victim KNOWS there’s a smart phone app and will have to use his ingenuity to stay out of range of that app. It will, of course, be easier said than done.

The whole scene has upped the stakes in the story as a whole. The other subplots are now free to carry on as needed, because at the right moments the Chase Subplot will be there to add to the story’s tension. Will Chaser actually CATCH Victim? Who know? Stay tuned!

What subplot(s) are you adding to you story to keep the tension high?

08 Jul

5 Quotes to Plot Your Novel By

I am currently slogging through plot development of a new series of novels. Here are some helpful quotes.

  1. “A plot is just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.” Margaret Atwood.
    It is hard to narrow down the possibilities of a story to a particular “WHAT happened next?”. It is a tricky process of going back and forth between character and interconnected events, refining both at the same time you make a decision about WHAT. Because I am planning a series, I am writing three plots with the same characters, which gives each character an internal conflict arc for individual books, as well as for the series overall. If an individual plot line doesn’t give me an idea for WHAT, I switch to series conflict; or I switch to a subplot.
  2. Terror: The Doorway to Great Plots

  3. “Real suspense comes with moral dilemma and the courage to make and at upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damned thing after another.” John Gardner.
    In the midst of all the WHAT, I am constantly searching for the moral dilemma. Versus. Good versus good. Understandable versus understandable, even if you might disagree. Moral dilemmas make for great plots.
  4. “Writing about writing, Checkhov instrucs us that no gun should go off unless we have first shown it hanging on the wall: every surprise must have its sublimated genesis.” Cynthia Ozick.
    If WHAT happens at the end of Book 3, how can I prepare the reader for it and surprise the reader at the same time? How needs to remain unstated in Books 1 and 2? In Acts 1 and 2 of each book?
  5. “Years ago, someone said to me, ‘Jackson, your books must be printed on scar tissue.’ I was pleased.” Richard Jackson
    Beware of characters who are too perfect, of plots that fit together too neatly. Life is messy and while art works to make sense of that mess, if it is too structured, it fails to connect emotionally. Embrace the scars of your characters. Embrace your own scars as a writer, as a person.
  6. “Get your character in trouble in the first sentence and out of trouble in the last sentence.” Barthe DeClements
    Pacing of plots is crucial; never give the reader a place to put the story down. This focus on tension on every page begins at the stage of slogging out a plot and continues till the last copyedit.
26 Jun

Timelines: Plotting

When you are deep into plotting a new novel or especially, a series, timelines are your friends. It’s a tool that will help straighten out the details and create order.

Obviously, a time line lays out the time period of your novel. Does it take place in 24 hours or does it span 24 years? Within that time span, you’ll want to slot events, reactions, and characters.

Backstory. Using a time line to plan a story probably means you’ll want to include back story events. You can do as much or as little as you need here. Maybe you want to include a character’s birth, baptism or bar mitzvah, high school graduation, or other major life events. You’ll also want to include other major events: parent’s divorce, house burned down, moving to a new school or city, first job and so on.

You can choose to do a separate time line for each person, but I like to have a master timeline where each character’s events are included. If you like, you can get fancy with this and do it on a spread sheet with each character getting a column or a certain color row.

Plot Events. When the events reach the story’s opening, it’s time to start imposing some structure. Dividing the time line into Act 1, 2 and 3 (and 4, if you use that paradigm), makes sense. You’ll want to make sure the story’s time line provides characters a great stage entrance, then introduces events that keep the story rolling. Here’s a great place to start tweaking the pacing of your story.
TimeLine

Ticking Clocks. Speaking of pacing, try introducing a ticking clock: some event must be completed by midnight or unspeakably bad things will happen. If Sherlock Holmes doesn’t solve the crime by midnight, beautiful Aurelia will be the victim of Poe’s pendulum (to mix up a lot of things!).

Edit and Revise. This is also a place where you should edit drastically. If you think up a scene, but can’t decide where to put it–cut it. It’s probably not important to the story anyway. Each scene or event should serve a definite purpose that pulls the reader toward the climactic ending. Some events will have a quiet purpose like characterization or setting p the next scene. OK, as long as there’s some purpose to the scene. Time enough later to Kill-Your- Darlings when you revise the novel.

Messing with the TimeLine. Now that you have the time line laid out, you can actually mess with it, if you like. You could present scenes out of order, with back story coming in as a flashback or even more drastic manipulations of time. The movie, Memento, is about a character with a short term memory problem, which lead to strange time manipulations. If you want to do this, be warned: the younger the audience, the more likely you are to confuse them. Telling a story with a jumbled timeline makes it harder for your reader to understand and enjoy. So, if you decide to go this route, use your best storytelling techniques. Read about flashbacks here or here.

05 Jun

Plotting the Middle with the Hero’s Journey

The middle of a novel is one of the hardest places to plot. The set up is easy to imagine and the climax, of course, has to be exciting and emotional. But the sagging middle–how do you handle it?

The Hero’s Journey is one of the most useful of the 29 plot templates because it has such clearly defined stages.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler is a detailed explanation of the Hero's Journey.

The Hero’s journey handles the middle by starting with the idea that Act I is the normal world, but Act II is a new and different world and the main character’s job is to learn to deal with that world. For a romantic comedy, this might be the New World of courting a girl instead of using a girl. For a science fiction story, there is often an invented world with strange happenings and strange characters to negotiate. The New World just means that in contrast to the Normal World of Act I, something is new and difficult for the main character.

One of the strengths of something like the Hero’s Journey is that it suggests typical events that will happen in certain stages of a story. It’s not that these are required and they are generic events in any case. However, it helps to know what are suggested or typical.

One of the first things a character needs to learn is the rules of the New World. A typical scene is a watering hole, a place where characters of this New World gather and interact. For example, in the original Star Wars movie, Luke and ObiWan go into town and stop at a cantina. Here, we see a wide range of alien species, meet Han Solo and see how he handles what life throws at him, and pull back the curtain a bit on ObiWan’s powers. The function of the watering hole is a sort of orientation to the New World.

Another option is to focus on tests that the main character will encounter. What difficulties will the main character encounter in this brave New World? Our romantic hero finds it hard to figure out how to order flowers for his new sweetie. Or in the sff, the main character has learn to eat whatever gross things aliens eat–and enjoy it.

At the same time, our main character is making allies and enemies, figuring out the political climate, or the local gang, or just how to stay safe. In the Lord of the Rings, this is where Frodo and the gang pick up the Ranger as a guide toward Rivendell. While the main villain needs to be clear in Act I, there are henchmen, allies of the villain, or subplot villains who can surface here.

Next, the Hero’s Journey points toward the midpoint of Act II, the Supreme Ordeal. What is the blackest moment you can imagine for your character? (Stop being nice! You MUST make him/her face the worst case scenario!) This must be a personally impossible moment, not just something generally bad within the context of the story. It’s the moment of despair which will contrast with the triumph at the end of the story.

For our romantic hero, it’s likely the moment he realizes that he’s a jerk and will never be right for Sweetie Pie. Or, it might be when Sweetie Pie dates his best friend. The key is to find the emotional pain. Why does Romantic hurt? Because he sees himself repeating his father’s mistakes, pushing Sweetie Pie away with his cruel words. Can he move past the ghosts of his past and find a new way to live? Right now, it appears that he can’t. Revel in the pain, don’t make light of it. Let the despair play out across one or more scenes.

For our sff story, it may the realization that the character can’t go back to his home world and must live in this alien world the rest of his/her life. All the uncomfortable things of the alien world pile up in this Supreme Ordeal and the pain of loss and separation intensifies.

So, I skipped a stage of the Hero’s Journey called Approach to the Inmost Cave: this is because I don’t know what needs to go there until I know what Supreme Ordeal the character must face. When I am planning a story, I figure out the Supreme Ordeal, then go back and figure out what I need to write to set up that Ordeal. If Sweetie Pie is dating Romantic’s best friend, we need to see that relationship set up, creating the dreaded triangle relationship. Think about what needs to happen to make the Supreme Ordeal a true ordeal. Then, make it happen.

The character comes out of the Supreme Ordeal changed in some way: there is a resolve to do things different than Dad. There is a glimmer of an idea about how to get back home (or how to settle into the alien world as home).

Things aren’t smooth and easy after the Supreme Ordeal, but the character has changed in some way. S/he has a new way of approaching life. And indeed, at the climax of Act II, the character often wins in some way. The Hero’s Journey calls this the Reward or Seizing the Sword. There’s a hard-won confidence, a bright new determination, or a rescue of Sweetie Pie from Best Friend’s evil clutches. Sometimes, there is a physical reward: a doctor finds a cure, treasure is uncovered, or Sweetie Pie and Romantic have supper without fighting.

This isn’t the end of the story, there is still much to cover in Act III. Can this change be permanent or is it fleeting? Will this cure truly work on the population of New York City? Will the new confidence fall apart at the first sign of another suitor for Sweetie Pie? And when Dad comes to meet Sweetie Pie, will that destroy the relationship?

But it is a completion of Act II, the middle of the story. Thanks to the Hero’s Journey!

06 Dec

Master Plot for Pacing, Characterization and Action

Somewhere in your writer’s head is a Master Plot, an idea of what a story or novel should be like, how it should progress. For writers who don’t outline–the write-by-the-seat-of-their-pants writers–the Master Plot is hard-wired into their brains.

For the rest of us, the idea of a Master Plot is helpful.

Hero’s Journey. The hero’s journey can be used for anything from Star Wars to the middle grade classic, Bridge to Terabithia.

Christopher Vogler’s explanation of the Hero’s Journey is excellent. The basic stages, along with the corresponding character arc are these:

  • Ordinary World – Limited awareness of problem
  • Call to Adventure – increased awareness
  • Refusal of Call – reluctance to change
  • Meeting the Mentor – overcoming reluctance
  • Crossing the First Threshold – committing to change
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies – experimenting with 1st change
  • Approach to the Inmost Cave- preparing for big change
  • Supreme Ordeal – attempting big change
  • Reward – consequences of the attempt
  • The Road Back – rededication to change
  • Resurrection – final attempt at big change
  • Return with Elixir – final mastery of the problem

You write comedy or humor and want a plot for a novel?
John Vorhaus, in The Comic Toolbox adapts the hero’s journey into a Comic Throughline.

Similar to the Hero’s Journey is Peter Dunne’s adaptation to a story in which two main characters influence each other, or one character drastically changes a second. The Emotional Structure details how the characters interact. This could be a sort of Rivalry story, a Love story, a Forbidden Love story, or even one of Pursuit, Rescue, or Escape. The main thing here is that two characters act upon each other. Dunne suggests that Acts 1 and 3 are about the outer plot, while Act 2 is the inner journey.

There are other “master plot” ideas, but in discussing the idea of master plots, I like one strategy that Jack M Bickham discusses in his book, SCENE AND STRUCTURE. His “scenic master plot” includes a three-chapter self-contained subplot in the middle of the story, something exciting like a chase scene.

“Chapter Seven. Hero viewpoint. He is embroiled in his three-chapter quest. . . an action sequence, preferably physical: a car chase, a face-to-face confrontation with violent words and emotions, perhaps even an attack on the hero’s life. . .The end of the chapter is at a new disaster which will allow no time for sequel [evaluating what just happened], or at some turning point in the middle of the ongoing scene. This chapter hooks instantly into the next.”

I’ve always thought this was brilliant. Right when the novel is in danger of lapsing into a sagging middle, you insert a subplot of action that resolves over three chapters, while keeping the reader engaged. Of course, it must feed back into the main story after those three chapters and be integral to the story. But it solves so many pacing problems.

Do you have a sort of “Master Plot” that you write by?

Where would you insert a 3-chapter, self-contained subplot that is mostly an action sequence?


24 Oct

Bad, Worse, Worst: Plan your Plots

Every scene must end in disaster. Really? EVERY scene?
OK. Most scenes.

I only say that every scene must end in disaster because if I give writers wriggle room, they run with it. So, yes, let’s work on the premise that every scene must end in disaster. What disaster? How do you choose?

Progressions. In general, your disasters need to be some sort of progression from bad to worse to absolute worst. Look at your story to find the natural progressions and then try to exaggerate a bit. For example, if a ballerina wants to try out for a dance part, what would be the absolute worst? Showing up drunk, out of shape and sloppily dressed–looking and acting like a bum.

Is that too extreme? Probably. So, back off the Worst scenario to find something reasonable: an injured Achilles tendon; just recovering from emergency appendectomy; a secret habit of drinking; grieving from a family death or tragedy. I like to plan the worst possible then back off from that for about mid-story and back off from that for the story opening. Working backward from Worst seems to ensure for me that I actually GO to the Worst and don’t try to avoid it.

Multiple Disasters. Also think about the subplots and how each of their narrative arcs can add to the overall disasters. By the time you slot into your story plan the Bad/Worse/Worst for the main plot and for a couple subplots, then you’re on your way to every scene ending in disaster. Then, you’ll just have to find ways to create disasters for the extra needed scenes of your story.

Ambiguous Disasters

One tool in your toolbox should be the ambiguous disaster. This is when the character appears to win, but in the end, s/he doesn’t. In this scene from Good Will Hunting, Will, Chuckie and their gang go into a Harvard bar (warning: PG-13 for language). Chuckie tries to pick up a couple girls and a Harvard guy steps in to humiliate him. Will steps in, though, to humiliate the Harvard guy. On the surface, Will’s intelligence wins out; but in the end, the Harvard guy wins simply because society recognizes a Harvard degree over native intelligence. It’s a great example of an ambiguous disaster: Will wins on one level but utterly fails on another. It demonstrates (Show-Don’t-Tell) exactly what Will faces in the rest of the story: society’s expectations about intelligence and the role of a college education in getting jobs.

If you can’t see this video, click here.

So, while you must end each scene in a disaster, you can let your character have some level of success–just don’t let it go too far, too early. Remember the mantra: Bad, Worse, Worst.

22 Oct

Why Now? Believable Plots

One question that is often overlooked in plotting is “Why Now?”

Let’s say you want your character to decide to complain to the principal about someone bullying them. OK. Great. It’s surely time Emily got some spunk and got Jeremy off her back. But why now?

It must be explained by actions and motivations that go deeper than, “I need this to happen so the next thing can happen in the story.”

External Events Evoke Plot Points

There could be external events that answer the “Why Now?” question.
Perhaps, there’s just been a conference about bullying and Emily realizes that someone cares. Maybe, she just read Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why (This is a link to the audio recording version, which is totally amazing) and is determined not to let that happen to her.

You are looking for an event that is important enough TO THE CHARACTER, that it evokes a change. Doesn’t matter if any other person would think this event is important, it just has to matter to the character. Often, something small will work–it will be the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Look at your story to see if there’s something intrinsic to the setting and character: burning a piece of bacon, getting an A (or F) on an essay, breaking a pair of sunglasses. Don’t think it has to be something good; it just needs to be something significant to the character that answers, “Why now?”

Internal Events Evoke Plot Points

On the other hand, it could just be a slow build of emotions. It’s not that there’s any one event that triggers the change, but the reader must clearly understand this slow build. The accumulation of water drops eventually overflows the cup. The tears spill.

This is trickier, because it’s all internal, can’t happen too fast, and yet, when the emotions trigger the plot action, it must be believable.

Either way, internal or external, plot events don’t just happen. They happen because of something and the reader needs to have this important question answered, “Why now?”

17 Jul

Plotting Act 2: 23 Ways to Defeat the Sagging Middle!

I am plotting Act 2, and the terror of the empty page is hitting, take two.
So, I’m going back to some previous posts about plotting to see what they will tell me about plot, especially the middle of this novel.

In 9 Ways of Looking at Plot, I looked at various ways to plot; in 29 Plot Templates, we looked at specific types of plots. How do these plot paradigms handle act 2? I won’t reprise all of them, just those that have a lot to offer for Act 2.

  1. Hero’s Journey: One of my favorite plot paradigm’s is the Hero’s Journey, a set of archetypical steps that a hero takes on a quest. Act 1 sets up the quest, while Act 3 shows the hero’s victory. What happens in the middle. Here are the stages:
    • Crossing the First Threshold – committing to change
    • Tests, Allies, Enemies – experimenting with 1st change
    • Approach to the Inmost Cave- preparing for big change
    • Supreme Ordeal – attempting big change
    • Reward – consequences of the attempt
    • The Road Back – rededication to change (Start of Act 3)

    Basically, it’s a study of character. What are the challenges faced by the hero, especially inner challenges; who helps him and who tried to defeat him; how does the hero make it through the worst possible challenge? It asks you to step back and find out what is the character’s biggest inner challenge; then deliver that with emotional impact.

  2. Snowflake or Branching Structure: The Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method, and How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey advice writers to start with a single conflict resolution and subdivide that endlessly until you get to the level of plot you want. This type of plotting moves from general to specific, without stopping to look back at the general.
  3. The spines of palm leaves were used to support this arch of sand--almost a perfect sandcastle. But without the right supporting structure, it sags badly and is in danger of falling apart. Likewise, your plot needs a solid structure.

  4. Snowflake + Important Points Paradigm. Syd Field (writing mostly about screen plays but with huge application for novels) basically advises a Snowflake approach to writing plot, but overlays a paradigm that points to important events and connections among those events. For Field, if you know the beginning and the end, the big scenes at the end of Act 1 and Act 2, and the midpoint–well, the rest is just connecting the dots.
  5. Quest. In this character oriented story, the protagonist searches for something and winds up changing him/herself. As in the Hero’s Journey, the middle must force the protagonist to face up to his/her greatest fear.
  6. Adventure. Plot oriented, this features a goal-oriented series of events. Act 2 must serve up a series of ever-escalating action scenes that lead to the big action-packed confrontation at the end.
  7. Pursuit. This is the typical Chase Plot. Definitely action-oriented, Act 2 is a series of close encounters; the pursued must be seen or seem to be within reach before the pursuer inevitably fails to catch up until Act 3.
  8. Rescue. This is another easy to recognize action-oriented plot and like the Chase Plot, it only works if you tease the reader with a series of near-rescues.
  9. Escape. A variation on the Rescue is when the protagonist escapes on his/her own; plot 2 is a series of near-escapes. You’re playing a tug of war with your audience’s emoions: Oh, she’s out. No, she’s recaptured.
  10. Revenge. Ah, character comes back in with this one. Someone is wronged and vows to take revenge. Often Act 2 is a series of planning maneuvers, moving into position to take the revenge.
  11. The Riddle. Love a good mystery? Act 2 is a slow revelation of clues, ever escalating in danger and excitement. Be sure to throw in some red herrings to keep the reader off balance.
  12. Rivalry. Character oriented, this story follows two main characters, one on a downward track and one on an upward track and their interactions. Act 2 is the movement of characters on their upward/downward tracks until the final clash.
  13. Underdog. Everyone is the US roots for the Underdog. This is the plot where the under-privileged (handicapped, poor, etc) triumphs despite overwhelming odds. But in the middle, s/he is still the Underdog, still losing–but learning something that will ultimately help him/her succeed.
  14. Temptation. Pandora’s Box extended to novel form. If Act 1 shows the character giving in to temptation, Act 2 shows the results of giving in to temptation. It should be focused on the internal cost of temptation, a character plot.
  15. Metamorphosis. This is a physical transformation of some kind. If you recently watched the movie, “District 9″, you’ll recognize this plot form. It’s Dracula, Beauty and the Beast, or the one I remember best is The Fly. Act 2 follows characters as they deal with the results of transformation; or, perhaps, it’s the process of transformation.
  16. Transformation. Similar to the previous, this plot features an inner change, instead of changing the outer form. This time, Act 2 focuses on the transformation of the inner character; selfish to generous, cruel to kind, etc. The inner arc must be very clear in Act 2, the old way of life/thinking is challenged.
  17. Maturation. Bildungsroman, rite of passage, coming-of-age–these terms all refer to someone growing up morally, spiritually or emotionally. Often, it’s just a hint of growth, or a tiny change that hints at larger changes. Act 2 must focus on challenging the character to grow in some way. What challenges the old ways of thinking? That’s what the character must face in Act 2.
  18. Love. The classic Boy-meets-Girl plot. Act 1: Boy meets Girl and they hate each other; Act 2: They hate each other; Act 3: Boy gets girl.
  19. Forbidden Love. Oh, hasn’t Stephenie Meyer milked this one in her Twilight series? Brilliant use of the forces that keep her characters apart, while still attracting. It’s still the same as above: Act 1: Boy meets Girl and they hate each other; Act 2: They hate each other; Act 3: Boy gets girl.
  20. Sacrifice. From the Biblical tale of Jesus to the story of parents sacrificing for their children, this is a staple of literature. Act 1 sets up the situation and makes the stakes clear; Act 2 escalates everything until; Act 3, there’s no place to turn except sacrifice. In this plot, you are escalating the stakes and cutting off options during Act 2, so there’s only one answer at the end.
  21. Discovery. You know those secrets you’ve buried deep in your past? This story digs around, exposes secrets and watches them affect the characters. Act 1 sets up the fact that there is a secret; Act 2 slowly uncovers the secret while Act 3 is about the results of the secret. Alternately, if Act 3 is about the revelation of a secret, then Act 2 is about growing suspicion, or perhaps about a deteriorating relationship that is affected by the secret. Only the secret can save the relationship (or destroy it).
  22. Wretched Excess. When a character is in a downward spiral from alcohol, drugs, greed, etc. this is the plot form. Act 1 shows the before state; Act 2 covers the events in the downward plunge in clear downward narrative arc.
  23. Ascension or Descension. A rise or fall from power puts a character into this plot form. Like the above, Act 1 shows before, Act 3 shows after, and Act 2 shows the process of getting from one to the other.
  24. Similar to the Hero’s Journey is Peter Dunne’s adaptation to a story in which two main characters influence each other, or one character drastically changes a second. The Emotional Structure details how the characters interact. This could be a sort of Rivalry story from above, a Love story, a Forbidden Love story, or even one of Pursuit, Rescue, or Escape. The main thing here is that two characters act upon each other. This can go one of two ways for Act 2:

    • First, Acts 1 and 3 can be about the external story, while Act 2 focuses on the way the characters act on each other.
    • Or Acts 1 and 3 can be about the character story, showing before and after of the relationship, while Act 2 focuses on the action of the external story.

    Of course, in both, the inner and outer plots must have plot points in Act 2; but the question is where do you focus?

Ok. I’m off to plot.

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